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Thursday, February 22, 2007

NEW ORLEANS Part III MARDIS GRAS: Hey Mister, Throw me Something!

Ok, Mardis Gras is now over for this year but I thought I'd still post this as this was my experience in 1994 when Sylivie and I went to New Orleans. I always wanted to return there in Springtime to see the wisteria in bloom and perhaps spot a few alligators in the swamp. But, alas, the city will likely never be the same and I wonder if many of those grand old mansions are still intact. I know the French Quarter escaped some of the damage. But is it still the same?

New Orlean's grandest celebration, Mardis Gras, was brought to New Orleans from Europe in 1879. Carnival is a mystical combination of Christian beliefs, pagan rituals, glamour and debauchery that begins twelve days after Christmas when Balls are held, hosted by the carnival "krewes" to choose the King and Queen of "misrule."

There are 60 krewes, the oldest being the krewe of Rex. The male and female members of these krewes pay up to $1000 a year for the honor and each krewe bears the cost of throw-aways, the doubloons and beads tossed to the crowds during the Carnival parades.

In February, the week before Lent, the parades begin, ending on Mardis Gras -- Fat Tuesday -- with the wildest celebration of all. The song goes: "It's Carnival time and everybody's havin' fun..." and you will have fun if you're in New Orleans for Mardis Gras.

More than two million people jam into the French Quarter to celebrate, so if you plan to be there for this event you will need to book your hotel months in advance and be prepared to pay top prices. But in the end, you won't regret the cost. There are things you will see in New Orleans during Mardis Gras that you will never experience anywhere else. It's one huge party, and if you use your common sense, you are sure to have an unforgettable and safe time. Keep you rmoney in a safe place under your clothing, and don't carry a purse. If you're with a friend, stay together. Don't walk down empty or unlit dark streets. Keep with the crowds. Be sure to dress warmly in casual clothing and comfortable walking shoes.

The balconies of the French Quarter are hung with purple, yellow and green streamers and flags, the Mardis Gras colors. The streets literally run with beer and are ankle deep with rubbish and discarded plastic cups. It's common practice in the French Quarter to carry your drinks in take-away cups from bar to bar. The official tourist drink is the Hurricane, but beer and wine flow freely too. Anything goes during Mardis Gras, and the New Orleans police, who are visible everywhere, are tolerant and polite but very firm in enforcing the law if necessary.

Pick up a copy of "Where", an essential guide to New Orleans, free and available from hotels and tourist agencies. It will include maps outlining the parade routes. There are several parades a day, and as the streets will be impassiable, it is wise to find a vantage point for viewing well in advance. You will soon get used to elbowing your way through the crowds, scrambling up on the barricades and screaming at the passing krewes the familiar refrain: "Hey mister, throw me somthin'!" as you grab for the trinkets and beads the krewes toss. The point is to catch as many strands of beads as you can and wear them all during the Carnival. If a doubloon lands near you, put your foot on it and wait, or you'll get trampled as you try to pick it up.

The parade floats, lavishly decorated with feathers, flowers and streamers of vibrant hues, are manned by the masked and costumed krewes, and carry guest celebrities. Each krewe has its own theme: Zulu's jungle; Orpheus' music; Okeanos' fantasy sea world; Bacchus's god of revellries. There are buccanneers and clowns, snappy marching bands, and spangled majorettes. Inevitably you will see New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain and his Half-Fast Walking Club, a merry band of strolling musicians.

A freezing gale howls down St. Charles Street but fails to chill the enthusiasm of the revelers. A bevy of plumed beautifies are almost blown over when the wind catches their head-dresses. Banners and streamers unfurl in the icy gusts. Spectators wrapped in blankets and muffled with scarves sip hot drinks. Some of them have been standing in the cold for hours.

Masks and costumes are tradiionally worn by revelers only on Fat Tuesday. This is the day the Monarchs come to town. The fun starts early in the morning with the Gold Nugget Festival at Woldenberg Park, between Jackson brewery and the Aquarium of the Americas, the highlight being the arrival of Rex, King of the Carnival, who is officially given control over the city by the Mayor.

At the corner of St. Anne and Burgundy Streets in the French Quarter, one of the most outageous contests of all is held. The Drag Queen Costume Contest features some of the most exotic and elaborate costumes modeled with an equal amount of pizzazz.

Down on Bourbon Street it's adult entertainment as the bartering for Mardis Gras beads between people on the street and those on the balconies begins. The traditional call of "Show us your #@*!" rings back and forth as particularly well-endowed women are challenged to show their comely charms.

But Mardis Gras is just one day and by midnight the party is over. New Orleans mounted policemen sweep through the French Quarter followed by the street cleaners who wipe away all traces of Carnival for another year. By morning the streets of Vieux Carre are spotless and the crowds of merrymakers have gone. You can once again enjoy New Orleans in all its elegance.

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